Hitchhiker’s Guide to Emergency Evacuation: Accounting for the Transportation Disadvantaged in Emergency Planning

August 11th, 2010 by CHHS RAs

By Gregory Sunshine
CHHS Research Assistant, summer 2010

Shortly after Hurricane Katrina, I took part in several rebuilding trips to the Gulf Coast. On my first trip to New Orleans, I found a box containing waterlogged wedding memorabilia belonging to the elderly woman who owned the house I was working on. She explained that the photos and trinkets were from her marriage to her late husband, who passed away during a hurricane. Naturally, I assumed she meant Hurricane Katrina, but I was wrong.

The woman explained that her husband died during a hurricane years earlier. While my mind went to surging water and high winds, the actual cause was much more surprising, and much more disturbing: the couple didn’t own a car. When the evacuation order was given, they attempted to leave, but as a low-income elderly couple, affording a car was out of the question. Their predicament was compounded by her husband’s need for a ventilator. After failing to find any means of transportation, they decided their only option was to stay home and hope for the best.

The storm came. The power went off. His ventilator stopped working. And she lost her husband.

This heartbreaking tragedy is illustrative of the hardships faced by many individuals who are part of the population known as the transportation disadvantaged – individuals without cars. Because the transportation disadvantaged have special needs during an emergency, they are considered part of the larger vulnerable population. As such, when planning for emergency evacuations, individuals without cars must be considered. Not only should states’ emergency evacuation plans include provisions for the transportation disadvantaged, the public must be made aware of the provisions.

Lessons can be learned from the evacuation during Hurricane Katrina. Before the storm, buses were provided for 54% of poor New Orleans citizens without access to personal vehicles. However, rather than transport them out of the city, the buses took people to impromptu, ill-equipped shelters like the Super Dome, which lacked medical supplies, health care, sanitary facilities, food, and water. Amtrak offered the use of trains to take citizens out of the city, but officials declined, and a 900 seat train departed without evacuees. After learning of the poor conditions in the Super Dome, it seems clear that if buses and trains are going to be provided for the transportation disadvantaged, officials should tap those resources to take citizens out of harm’s way and to adequate sheltering facilities.

Some states have taken steps to include provisions for the transportation disadvantaged. For example, Florida’s Comprehensive Emergency Management Plan instructs each county’s school board to provide “transportation assistance in an emergency evacuation” by coordinating “the use of its vehicles with the local emergency management agency.” In Texas, residents who need evacuation assistance, specifically during a hurricane, are urged to pre-register with the state’s transportation assistance registry by calling 211. In the event of an emergency requiring evacuation, the state provides local emergency managers with registrants’ information; emergency managers are then in turn responsible for arranging evacuation transportation for those registrants.

The Maryland Core Plan for Emergency Operations goes a step further in its evacuation planning for the transportation disadvantaged. Not only does the plan require the Maryland Department of Transportation to “[p]rovide transportation resources to assist in evacuation and re-entry[,]” it also instructs the Maryland Department of Disabilities Emergency Preparedness section to provide emergency personnel “with means to work with special populations during a disaster … such as transportation.” The provision not only ensures that evacuation efforts consider the transportation disadvantaged, it also addresses the challenges of special needs populations.

Although accounting for the transportation disadvantaged in emergency plans is the first step, unless citizens are informed of what amenities are available to them prior to the emergency, the plan may be ineffective. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation and U.S. Department of Homeland Security, in most jurisdictions “[m]ethods for communicating evacuation options by modes other than personal vehicles are not well developed …” Further, even when some jurisdictions “indicate locations where public transportation may be obtained,” most do not have a service available to get people to those locations. This situation particularly affects people with various disabilities.

It is not hard to imagine the difficulty of communicating evacuation options during an actual evacuation, which is why early preparation and an informed public will save lives during an emergency. Hurricane Katrina underscored the importance of states adequately formulating their evacuation plans prior to an incident, and making these plans known. With proper planning, transportation disadvantaged individuals like the elderly woman I met in New Orleans will have a fighting chance when evacuation is a necessary path to survival.

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